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Never Turn Back
By Catherine Gourley
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 1997 Catherine Gourley
All rights reserved.
Beryl Markham wondered how much longer she could stay awake. Cramped inside the cockpit between two petrol tanks, she had been piloting the single engine airplane for more than nineteen hours without a rest. She had been flying blind, unable to see anything but darkness and fog outside the cabin window. She had been flying silent, without a radio transmitter to guide her or keep her company through the long stormy night. She had been flying without even a life jacket, for there was not enough room inside the cabin to hold that lifesaving equipment and the necessary extra tanks of fuel.
Now at last it was morning and the fog had begun to thin. Through the skin of ice that had formed on the inside of the cabin window, she saw the lights of a ship far below her on the Atlantic Ocean. She felt a sudden exhilaration. Still, she could not be certain just where she was. England and Ireland were behind her. She could only hope that she had not drifted off course and that somewhere ahead, hidden under the ribbons of fog, were the cliffs of Newfoundland.
In September, 1936, no man or woman had ever flown an airplane east to west across the Atlantic Ocean. Beryl was intending to be the first. The airplane that she was piloting was a single engine Vega Gull christened The Messenger. Her friends in England had teased her that it should be called instead The Flying Tombstone. For flying an airplane the wrong way across the Atlantic Ocean was a dangerous thing to attempt. Some had called it suicidal. Strong head winds would slow the plane down and use up most of its fuel. In September, bad weather could skid her off course. Even a few degrees off course could mean not reaching land before her fuel ran out.
"I wouldn't tackle it for a million," J. C. Carberry had told her, even though he was the one who had dared her to do it and then put up the money to build the airplane. "Think of all that black water!" he said, smiling grimly. "Think how cold it is!"
But Beryl had been in dangerous spots before and had used her wits to pull her through. In the highlands of East Africa, where she had spent her childhood, she had been attacked by a lion. She had hunted wild boar with arap Maina, a Kipsigis warrior. She had ridden her father's wild stallions across the fields of his farm in Njoro. Beryl Markham rather liked danger. It made her feel alive. She had been afraid to try this incredible waterjump. She had lain in her bed just yesterday morning and considered bailing out of the agreement she had made with J. C. But long ago her father and arap Maina had taught her that if a thing were worth doing, then she must swallow her fear and do it well.
At five o'clock the previous afternoon, Beryl had stood on the airfield in Abingdon, England. The weather forecast was not good: head winds of forty to fifty miles per hour and rolling in off the Atlantic, heavy thunderstorms. A small crowd of newspaper reporters and photographers had gathered at the airfield. They had been dogging her for days. Why are you doing this? they had pressed. Why risk your life?
The names of other pilots—Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Jim Mollison—were already in the record books. Like them, Beryl Markham was a professional pilot. She had more than 2,000 hours of flying experience. She cared nothing for setting new records. Nor was she anxious to die. How could she explain to these reporters about her father and arap Maina and the lessons they and Africa had taught her? How could they understand why it was important that she swallow her fears and move forward? She couldn't explain it to them. She didn't try. Her answer was simply, "Flying is my job and this Atlantic flight is part of it."
Beryl had crawled into the cockpit and taken off into a rainy sky. Once airborne, confidence and concentration had replaced fear. But now, after nineteen hours of fog and rain and sleet, she was exhausted. The Gull's engine droned. Beryl's eyes burned and her head felt heavy. Her legs and back were cramped. A shadow appeared in the fog ahead. Beryl squinted through the ice on the window, hoping the shadow was land. Then she smiled. Cliffs were standing in the sea, reaching up to her. The land might be Labrador or Newfoundland. Her destination was New York City. But here at least was solid ground. She could follow the coast south to Sydney, Nova Scotia, where she could land, refuel, and take off again. She began to hum. The hard part—the hundreds of miles of cold, black water and the droning loneliness—was nearly over.
Then suddenly, the droning ceased. The engine coughed, then died. The Messenger began to lose altitude. The fuel gauge was near empty, but the plane should still have had enough petrol to make land. A few more miles, Beryl thought as her free hand quickly turned on and off the handles of each empty petrol tank, hoping to unclog what she believed must be an airlock. The handles' sharp metal pins bit into the palms of her hand. The engine caught and climbed, then spat and sputtered and dove again. Beryl stared hard at the cliffs ahead. The boulders on the beach would surely shred the The Messenger's belly. With bleeding hands, Beryl pulled back on the stick to keep the Gull in the air, trying to clear the cliffs. Just a few more miles, she thought, a few more moments.
Again the engine cut out. The single propeller swung slowly, then stopped. The Gull glided, as silent as a sea bird floating above land. The realization that she had failed struck Beryl as hard as the ground rushing up to snag the Gull's nose. The powerful impact threw her forward, smashing her head against the windshield. She heard the glass shatter. Then all was quiet.
A voice called to her. "Lakweit!" It was the voice of arap Maina. "Your eyes are filled with clouds today, Lakweit!"
In Swahili, lakweit means "little girl." Beryl was no more than seven years old, but already she was tall and slender and strong. Her hair was straw yellow and hung in her eyes. She wore no hair ribbons the way other little British girls living in East Africa in 1909 did. Instead, a cowrie shell hung around her waist on a leather cord. The Africans who worked for Charles Clutterbuck, Beryl's father, had tied the shell around her in order to keep away evil spirits.
"Lakweit! Bend down and look so that you may learn." Arap Maina was the African whom Beryl's father had assigned as the child's personal servant. Arap was a term of respect, and Beryl listened carefully to her guardian. "See how this leaf is crushed. Feel the wetness of this dung."
He was her teacher, and her classroom was the Great Rift Valley in the country that would become known, years later, as Kenya. At the beginning of the twentieth century, British pioneers like Charles Clutterbuck controlled the land. Beryl was the daughter of mazungu, the white man. She had a mother, but Clara Clutterbuck had gone away long ago. The Kipsigis and Nandi peoples, Africans from two different tribes who worked for Clutterbuck on his farm in Njoro, had accepted his lakweit into their lives without question.
Very often Beryl woke before dawn and stood barefoot in grass as high as her shoulders and still wet and cold with night dew. Before her, the valley turned purple in the morning sunlight. Behind her were the stables that housed her father's racehorses and, beyond the stables, the tall blue cedars of the Mau Forest. Very soon, the syces, or African servants, would begin shoveling the manure out of the horse stalls and into the spreading sunshine. But by then, Beryl and her dog, Buller, would be gone, having silently escaped across the valley to be with arap Maina and Kibii.
Kibii was arap Maina's son. He was younger than Beryl by a few years, but the two children—one female and British, the other male and African—spent their days together. Swinging on vines, wrestling with each other, jumping straight up as high as they could, hiding in wild pig holes—games like these were more than just play. They were an important part of an African child's education. Like Kibii and the other totos, or children, Beryl played hard. The games shaped her young muscles and sharpened her senses. She learned how to read a crushed leaf and wet dung and know what wild creature—a water buffalo or a zebra—had passed. Beryl had not yet been to a formal school, but she knew many things. She knew how to skin a buck, how to catch moles for the money her father paid her, how to treat a snakebite. And although she had not yet shot a gun or thrown a spear, she knew that the best way to lame a charging lion was to wound him in the shoulder.
Each morning the head syce rang the large bell near the stables to announce the beginning of another day of work. Before anyone could stop her, Beryl would begin to run, a sort of hop and skip gait that she had learned by imitating the Nandi warriors. The ground over which she loped had been formed by volcanic eruptions more than 15 million years ago when one continent—Africa—had collided with another—Eurasia. In the violence of that collision, the walls of the Great Rift rose thousands of feet above sea level, cradling an immense valley.
Volcanic eruptions had shaped the land, giving it unique characteristics—sheer, jagged cliffs, a flat floor of desert bush with scattered thorn trees. Now the land was shaping Beryl. Its spine of volcanic rubble still poked through the spongy valley floor, but Beryl's bare feet had long ago toughened to its sharpness. At seven years old, she was already a lover of all things wild and free. The highlands was her home, and her home was alive with the chatter and rumble of a thousand living things. Her home was the whistle and click of reedbuck darting through the grass. It was the bark of leopards stalking close to the white settlers' houses, hunting their domesticated dogs. It was the scratchscratch of dik-diks no bigger than rabbits using their hind legs to cover their droppings. The voice of arap Maina called to her. The voice of the land called to her, too. And Lakweit ran, answering the call.
But life for Beryl would not remain so wild and free for very long. Many pioneer settlers in the highlands did not approve of the way Charles Clutterbuck—called Clutt by his friends—was raising his daughter. It was not proper for a white child, a girl particularly, to run wild like some creature in the bush, sniffing animal dung. Why was she not at home learning arithmetic and British history? Nor was it proper for her to roam unchaperoned among the Africans whose morals were clearly not the same as theirs. The cowrie shell was an example. Was it not the symbol of female genitalia? The Kipsigis tied the shell around the waists of their own female children soon after birth. Yes, something had to be done about Clutt's wild child. After all, Beryl was a British subject.
Beryl Clutterbuck was born in England on October 26, 1902. She was the second child. Her brother Richard was two years older. Her Irish mother, Clara Alexander, was an excellent horsewoman. Clara's greatest love was fox hunting, a sport that was challenging to even the best equestrian. Soon after Beryl was born, Clara was thundering again through fields and woods on her horse, chasing fox.
Clutt was also a strong rider. He had once been an officer in the army, but by the time Beryl was born, his occupation was listed on the child's birth certificate as farmer. What Clutt knew best was how to handle horses. In 1904, he began to consider leaving England and its ruddy fox for a wilder place with fiercer game—the highlands of East Africa. The British government had recently gained control of that part of Africa. It called its newest colony BEA, for British East Africa, and described its occupation as a protectorate, a superior power in control over a dependent people. Now it was offering parcels of African land to British citizens for the low price of approximately seven cents an acre. Here was a country where every white settler could be the lord of his own manor. The red soil was so rich that sweet potatoes could grow to forty pounds, or so the rumors went. To encourage white settlement, the government had just completed the construction of a railroad line from the harbor town of Mombasa on the Indian Ocean inland to Nairobi. From there, the train line struggled upcountry nine thousand feet into the highlands and across the Great Rift Valley, ending at Kisumu on Lake Victoria.
The Africans called the line the Iron Snake. In England, they called it the Lunatic Line, a train to nowhere. Many people believed that the altitude of the mountains was too high for the air to be healthy and that the equatorial sun could weaken the heart, liver, and spleen of light-skinned Europeans. The "town" of Nairobi was nothing more than a cluster of tin shacks along the rail line. Beyond Nairobi, the country had no roads, no hospitals, and few farms.
Then there was the resistance of the Africans. The Kikuyu, in particular, viewed the white settlers as invaders and used poison-tipped arrows to drive them off their land. To maintain control and to display superior force, a small British army known as the Third Battalion of the King's African Rifles (KAR) patrolled the colony, putting down with bullet and bayonet what the British referred to as "savage" rebellions.
If Clutt knew about the poison-tipped arrows of the Kikuyus or the bayonets of the KAR, it did not change his mind. Six weeks after learning about the land for sale in BEA, Clutt sold most everything that he and Clara owned. Beryl was not even two years old and her brother just four when the family left England, taking with them some pieces of antique furniture and an English sheepdog. Beryl remembered only sailing for a long time on a ship that seemed to climb "the hill of the sea and never reach[ed] the top."
In the highlands, days are hot and sunny and dry. The nights are often cold enough for frost. Charles found work managing a dairy owned by a British aristocrat who had also emigrated to BEA, Lord Hugh Cholmondeley Delamere. Lord Delamere called his African home on the foothills of the Mau Forest "Equator Ranch," because the equator ran through one corner of his property. Even so, Delamere hated the sun. He had once become very ill with sun sickness, and every day as he rode across his thousands of acres, inspecting barbed wire fences and the health of his cattle, he wore a large pith helmet to shade his face. His red hair hung long to his shoulders and protected his neck from the sun. Lord Delamere was not the only one who feared the sun. A common article of clothing worn by the settlers was a spine pad, a sort of flannel belt or cummerbund that Europeans believed could prevent the rays of the sun from damaging vital internal organs.
Lord Delamere and his wife Florence became two of the most influential of the white settlers in BEA. Although they were lord and lady, the Delameres lived as most settlers did in a mud hut called a rondavel. The dark walls of mud were cool against the beating sun. At night when temperatures dropped low enough for frost, the mud walls prevented drafts. The floor of the hut was also made of earth, tamped and polished as smooth as clay, but unlevel just the same. The Delameres' wooden dining table and sideboard sat at cockeyed angles inside the hut.
Glass windows and wooden doors with locks might have been practical in England, but not in BEA. A burlap sack worked just as well. The Delameres' front door faced the sweeping plains below, thick with herds of zebra and wildebeest and Thompson's gazelles—called Tommies by the British—that had roamed there long before the Iron Snake found its way into the highlands.
Clara and her children lived in a similar hut on the Delameres' land while Clutt managed the dairy. For Clara, living inside a mud shanty and eating tinned peaches and fresh-butchered Tommy chops for breakfast, lunch, and often again for dinner was a primitive way of life, even if the cooked chops were served on china dishes shipped from England. But at least Clara and her children had a friend in Florence. Like Clara, Florence was Irish. Once, she had also enjoyed foxhunting and dancing and dresses of chiffon and lace. But this was a different place and a different time. The men rose at four in the morning. As the dawn broke, Clara might have heard Delamere's gramophone playing one of his favorite melodies. As the day ended, she might have heard the clamor of voices from the Masai herdsmen who crowded with their spears inside the Delameres' hut to talk of cattle and to share their own folktales. Between sunrise and sunset, the women pioneers worked as hard as the men. They hunted game. They butchered their own meat. They cared for the livestock, including chickens, pigs, and ostriches.
With Delamere's help, Clutt was able to stake his own farm at Njoro. He called it Green Hill Farm. Nothing could be planted in the red soil, however, until the snarls of grass, boulders, and ant hills were cleared away. Years later in her autobiographical book, West with the Night, Beryl described the farm at Njoro:
"It looked like this at first: It was a broad stretch of land, part of it open valley, but most of it roofed with the heads of high trees—cedar, ebony, mahogo, teak, and bamboo—and their trunks were snared in miles of creeping plants. The creeping plants rose to heights of twelve and fifteen feet and, from the ground, you never saw the tops of the trees until they fell from the blows of axes and were dragged away by teams of oxen handled by Dutchmen with whips that cracked all day."
Excerpted from Beryl Markham by Catherine Gourley. Copyright © 1997 Catherine Gourley. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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Table of Contents
one The Waterjump
three The Escape
four Night of Lions, Night of Leopards
five The Egret's Message
six The Horse With Wings
seven Losing Njoro
eight The Decents
nine Wise Child
ten Pioneer of the Skies
eleven Safari Nights
twelve The Messenger
thirteen The Stranger